Mandy: The Art Of Film Grain

One of the interesting by-products of the digitization of everything Is the steep rise in nostalgia for physicality There’s a great lecture from the writer and publisher James Bridle Where he laughs about the fact that nobody ever really talked about The smell of books until e-books started to threaten their existence. All of a sudden we became Nostalgic for a quality that we never really noticed before Or, take the resurgence in vinyl record sales. While it’s definitely true that the sound quality of vinyl is amazing I’d be willing to bet that our attraction to it also has something to do with the object itself — a real thing that takes up space in your home, a symbol of the analog world. As more and more of our lives get vacuumed into the digital realm We’re increasingly likely, I think, to look for these symbols and be attracted to them. And the crazy thing is that these Reminders don’t even have to be physical objects. All they have to do to tap into that nostalgia is resemble the traits of those objects. Think about Instagram filters. Designed to look like old cameras and film stocks, these filters mimic objects that most Instagram users won’t ever touch. As Bridle says, putting a filter on your digital photo is an attempt to codify that image As memory; to wrap it up in something solid and historical that calls back to a time Before everything was fluid and changing and impossible to hold on to. In this way, our nostalgia becomes an aesthetic, and in film, one of the features of that aesthetic is grain. Film grain is a texture in processed film that has the appearance of tiny particles moving around randomly in the image. The amount of grain has to do with the speed and size of the film stock and the amount of light being used. During the era when film was the only choice, many photographers and filmmakers tried hard to eliminate this aspect of film processing. But it was always a part of cinema, especially in low-budget independent movies using smaller film stocks Like 16 millimeter, and without access to big professional studio lighting. These days, it’s easy to tap into that indie aesthetic by using grain. The grain itself is loaded with all these associations that reach back into the history of film The question is now that grain has its own aesthetic, can that aesthetic be pushed further? And that brings me to Mandy, the second feature film from Panos Cosmatos If you haven’t seen it, do that right now, it might still be playing at a local theater near you Mandy is a revenge horror movie starring Nicolas Cage Reminiscent of the grindhouse films of the 70s and 80s when the movie is set It’s a simple story as most revenge movies are, but what sets it apart is the psychoactive vision and focus of Cosmatos, who clearly has something very specific in mind visually. The movie is dark, grimy, often saturated with primary colors and completely awash in grain. In this way It’s not unlike Cosmatos’ first feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow Which is much more ambiguous plot wise, but interested in exploring the same visual fetishes For Cosmatos, it’s not just about paying homage to old films It’s about learning the expressive potential of existing aesthetics and stretching their qualities to see what kinds of feelings and tones they can evoke ~The way I look at it now though is I feel like in the present, time has no meaning anymore ~Yeah ~And so it’s, I feel like now if choosing an era for your film is almost like choosing a color Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy invite us to consider film grain as a visual tool, like lighting or color, not just a byproduct of chemical processing So what does grain feel like? Maybe the most prominent quality of film grain is movement.Grain gets inside whatever’s in the frame and imbues it with motion In fact, this kind of swimming, breathing movement from within mimics the visual effects of hallucinogenic drugs Which play a major part in Mandy Film grain is hypnotic and that adds to the sense of the film existing in a dreamlike universe Or as one horribly bad acid trip At times, the grain almost has a paranoid feeling like there’s something squirming under the image Another quality of grain is that it blends Grain gives an underlying texture to the frame so that there is a continuity between One object and another It gives the impression that the image is atomized into tiny particles that could disperse and overlap Cosmatos often mixes heavy grain with smoke to heighten this effect For the characters and the viewers Nothing is solid or what it seems Things can shift at a moment’s notice In a world that looks like this You’re always vulnerable, always at risk of coming apart The most striking example of this is a scene in the first half of Mandy where Mandy herself is kidnapped by a cult and force-fed hallucinogenic drugs Cosmatos turns the dial way up on this scene by drenching the image in purple and pink hues and adding a trailing effect to movement so that when the cult leader Jeremiah Sands gesticulates, You actually have this steam of grain that falls away from himThen when he kneels down to speak to her up close, Cosmatos actually fades Mandy’s face into Sands it’s hardly noticeable at first and that’s Purposeful The texture of the image helps this be so subtle that you’re not quite sure if your mind is playing tricks on you It’s important to note that even though this is cool as hell and something that film geeks like myself drool over This effect is not just visual decoration It adds to the story. Sands is trying to assimilate Mandy into his cult, as you see her face Fade into his He’s using the qualities of psychoactive drugs to loosen Mandy’s grip on her own identity so that he can substitute his own Stuff like this is what gives Mandy its power. Its aesthetic is not added on to the film after the fact It’s a film that literally wouldn’t function if you took those aesthetic features away That’s true for its use of film grain and for all the other visual fireworks of the movie You know as history becomes nostalgia and nostalgia becomes aesthetic, a great opportunity is being presented to new filmmakers I agree with Cosmatos; time has no meaning anymore Every aesthetic of the past is a palette for the future You can copy and paste those old aesthetics onto your work or you can take up the colors with a spirit of experimentation And have some fucking fun How’re you doing everybody? 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